Lee McIntyre is a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University and an Instructor in Ethics at Harvard Extension School. He holds a B.A. from Wesleyan University and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor). He has taught philosophy at Colgate University (where he won the Fraternity and Sorority Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching Philosophy), Boston University, Simmons College, Tufts Experimental College, and Harvard Extension School (where he received the Dean's Letter of Commendation for Distinguished Teaching). Formerly Executive Director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University, he has also served as a policy advisor to the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard and as Associate Editor in the Research Department of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
McIntyre is the author of Respecting Truth: Willful Ignorance in the Internet Age (Routledge, 2015), Dark Ages: The Case for a Science of Human Behavior (MIT Press, 2006), and Laws and Explanation in the Social Sciences (Westview Press, 1996). He is the co-editor of three anthologies: Readings in the Philosophy of Social Science (MIT Press, 1994) and two volumes in the Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science series: Philosophy of Chemistry: Synthesis of a New Discipline (Springer, 2006) and Philosophy of Chemistry: Growth of a New Discipline (Springer 2014). McIntyre is also the author of Explaining Explanation: Essays in the Philosophy of the Special Sciences (Rowman and Littlefield/UPA, 2012), which is a collection of twenty years' worth of his philosophical essays that have appeared in Synthese, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Teaching Philosophy, Perspectives on Science, Biology and Philosophy, Critica, Theory and Decision, and elsewhere. Other work has appeared in such popular venues as The Humanist, the Times Higher Education Supplement, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and The Regional Review.
Q & A
|What was it that first got you interested in philosophy?|
As a boy I was fascinated by weird questions that no one else could answerand for all I knew no one else had ever even consideredsuch as what was beyond the end of space and why I had consciousness as a particular person, rather than some other person. These questions continued to bother me for several years, but they never really led me to philosophy until many years later in college when I discovered that these are precisely the sort of things that philosophers worry about.
|Why are you now interested in writing philosophy for the general public?|
You have to understand that I did academic scholarship for many years. In fact my first book, Laws and Explanation in the Social Sciences, is a scholarly book (though I hope it is written in a way that can be appreciated by the general public). Eventually I grew frustrated with the idea that even if I was making progress as an academic, only a few hundred people would ever read what I had written. I remember reading a depressing statistic somewhere about how only ten people or so read the average academic article. How could I hope to have any influence that way? Meanwhile the world is crying out for solutions to real social problems. But where are the scholars? Doing their linguistic crossword puzzles, that's where. To me it felt like fiddling while the world burned.
That's when I decided that I had to try to make a real contribution to the intellectual debate about the state of the modern world and what we could do about it. I wrote Dark Ages as a result. At the time, I was on sabbatical in my academic job, so I kept it a secret. It wouldn't have done me much good anyway, since it isn't a piece of scholarship. But I trust that it has had much more influence. In Respecting Truth, I take this one step further and try to engage what I think is one of the most troubling questions of the last decade, which is why so many people feel free to reject facts that they don't like. I'm so much happier now that I have the chance to reach a wider audience and hope that my work might make a difference. I feel that in some ways I'm still teaching philosophy, just on a larger stage than before.
|You grew up in a working class family and were in the first generation in your family to go to college. How does that effect your values and your writing?|
I grew up in an economically depressed neighborhood not far from the airport in Portland, Oregon. There were strip clubs and tattoo parlors and a motorcycle gang that had its headquarters in the duplex right across the street from our house. But my family always had it better than others in the neighborhood. For one thing, my parents believed in education, so we always had lots of book in the house. I still remember the joy that I got as a kid from reading the World Book Encyclopedia. Somewhere along the line when I was about eight years old I started wondering why the world was such an awful place. I remember asking my mother about this and she gave me a great answer. She said "I don't know the answer to that question, but somewhere at the great universities right now, I'll bet there are scholars who are studying that very question." How could I not want to become a professor after that? In my imagination, academe became a noble profession. These were the people with the time and the intelligence to devote themselves to solving the world's problems. When I actually got into academics, and saw some of the petty politics and lack of ambition in most scholarship, I guess I was pretty disappointed. But I never lost that sense that academic scholarship should justify itself by being useful to humanity. Even if it's number theory or conceptual art, I think that the search for truth can be relevant to the human experience. And I've never lost the feeling that it's a noble thing to work on something that can improve the quality of people's lives, maybe even back in my old neighborhood.
|Even as a philosopher?|
Pretty wild idea, huh? It just goes to show that the dreams we have as kids never really leave us. I read in the encyclopedia about all of the great philosophers and scientists throughout history, and before long I decided that I wanted to try to be like them. The kings and generals you forget. The writers have a better shot at longevity. But the thinkers and scientists, they remain important throughout the ages. Socrates, Galileo, Newton, Hume, Thoreau, those are my great heroes.
|How do you decide what you are going to write about?|
The ideas for my books just come. I don't know from where. To tell you the truth, I'm afraid to think about that too much. But once I get an idea the process is quite straightforward. I spend about a year, sometimes two, reading and clipping things, which I tend to see everywhere once I have an idea that frames the context. This process usually goes on in concert with whatever book I'm currently writing, so the effort is quite low key and casual at this point, strictly on the back burner. I'm always writing one book while I'm researching another. But when the current book is finished, then I swing into high gear on the next one, outlining, planning my strategy, and wondering how I can have a fresh take on what may be a very old question. After that, it's just a matter of writing in a way that constantly keeps the reader in mind. When I worked at the Federal Reserve I was a magazine editor, and I had to try to distill complex economic ideas into prose that was digestible by the general public. I had a very good editor there and she was really the one who taught me how to write for a general audience.
|So here's the question that writers always hate: what is your writing process like?|
I suppose some people love to say that writing is agony, but for me it's really not. I like writing. Otherwise I wouldn't do it. Sometimes it's true that the best part of writing is "to have written," so I get that. When you're actually writing there is always some baselevel anxiety about losing the thread. But most daysat least when it's going wellit's a pleasure to have the opportunity to think on paper, which is what writing philosophy is all about. Depending on the material or the format, though, writing can be quite technically challenging. Writing philosophy for other academics is like building a brick wall. You want to construct a fortress because you know that someone is going to attack it. But for the kind of writing I do now, I've had to convince myself that it is acceptable to rely on my instinct a bit more. To trust that I know a live philosophical idea when I see one. I think that my writing has improved as I've gotten less defensive. But I will say that fiction is the hardest writing of all, at least for me. To have an idea is one thing. To express that idea within the format of a story, that is high art. Leonard Rosen and William Landay, I take my hat off to you.
|Do you have any quirks about writing? Any superstitions or rituals to get the juices flowing?|
I find that it's helpful to read what I've written the day before, as a warm up. So I always start with some editing, and then I just plunge into whatever comes next. But no, I don't have any rituals or that type of thing. I absolutely cannot stand to have any music playing while I'm writing. It just breaks my flow completely. But writing is pretty solitary, so I love to have company, which these days consists of two big German Shepherds and one friendly Golden Retriever. I take them out for a run in the morning and then come back to the house to work. We go upstairs and they all crowd into my study and fall asleep on the floor behind my chair, wedging me in at my desk. It's a pretty good way to get work done actually. Sometimes I sit there and write an extra hour, or delay lunch or getting the mail, because I don't want the commotion of disturbing the dogs. It's a nice vibe. They hold up their end of the bargain pretty well.
|You are a dedicated student of the martial arts. Have you ever thought of writing about karate?|
To tell you the truth, no. Most karate books are pretty bad, so I guess that hasn't been very inspiring. What I mean is that the writing is bad. But karate books aren't really written to be beautiful prose. Yet I find plenty of beauty in karate itself. In some ways there is a disconnect any time that someone tries to write about something that is mostly physical or even spiritual. Because the martial arts really cannot be intellectualized to be understood, they have to be practiced. In fact, I think that philosophy could learn a lot from the martial arts in this way. It wasn't always true, of course, but these days philosophy is almost all theory and no practice. Thoreau once said that we have professors of philosophy, but no real philosophers. That was over a hundred years ago and I think he's still right. Today we have academics who teach philosophy, but very few practitioners of philosophy. Imagine if law schools turned out only law professors, but there were no lawyers. I think that philosophy should learn to have practice, as well as theory, like they do in the martial arts. But that isn't really a book, I suppose. That's a way of life.
|What do you have coming up next?|
My most recent book is Respecting Truth, in which I explore the problem of why people sometimes refuse to believe something even when they have good evidence that it is true. Unfortunately, these days we don't have to look far for examples. As the polar ice caps melt, a stubborn few continue to maintain that global warming is a hoax. Even after the research has been debunked as fraudulent, an alarming number of parents still refuse to give their kids routine vaccinations, for fear of a link with autism. This is not just a societal problem, but a philosophical one. What should we do when the most reliable methods for discovering truth begin to break down not because they fail to find it, but because people feel free to reject knowledge that conflicts with their ideological beliefs? In Respecting Truth, I examine the roots of this problem and begin to outline a solution: that the greatest threat to truth is not ignorance or even false belief, but disrespect for the open methods of inquiry—like science—that have the best prospect for helping us to get past the built-in cognitive irrationalities and society-wide delusions that are holding us back from embracing true beliefs.
My next book is titled The Sin Eater, and it's a novel—a "moral thriller." It's the story of a man whose daughter is taken by Child Protective Services on a false accusation of child abuse, and he has to turn for help to a dangerous yet resourceful childhood friend, who introduces him to a world of outlaw bikers who know how to get things done outside the system. How far would you go to rescue your child—and clear your own name—if you knew that the choices you made along the way threatened that you could never return to the life you once knew? So there is a philosophical theme to this book, but it is written in a way that I hope will also be enjoyable at the level of pure entertainment. I've written it with the intention of it being a real page-turner, but if I can raise a few philosophical questions along the way, then that's all to the good.